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A sleeper who woke up: Chase Whitley, RHP, New York Yankees

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Although the league eventually caught up with him, New York Yankees rookie Chase Whitley was a sleeper success story early in 2014. What does his future hold?

Chase Whitley
Chase Whitley
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we looked at New York Yankees rookie Shane Greene, who unexpectedly had a fine major league debut season after relative anonymity as a prospect. Yankees teammate Chase Whitley was also a surprise contributor in 2014, although in his case the league caught up with him after an early run of success. Whitley is still an interesting case study, so let's take a look.

Chase Whitley began his college career at Southern State Union Community College in Alabama. He transferred to Troy University for his junior year in 2010 and was successful as both a hitter and pitcher, batting .364/.464/.564 with 10 homers and an excellent 31/27 BB/K in 236 at-bats. On the mound he posted a 3.68 ERA out of the bullpen, with a 65/24 K/BB in 66 innings, allowing just 48 hits and saving seven games. Scouts preferred him as a pitcher and the Yankees drafted him in the 15th round.

He succeeded immediately, saving 15 games with a 1.31 ERA for Staten Island in the New York-Penn League, with a sharp 44/15 K/BB in 34 innings plus a pair of outings for High-A Tampa. Here is the report I filed entering 2011, which gives you the basic scouting report at the time:

Whitley was a closer-shortstop at Troy University in Alabama, earning a 15th round selection in the ’10 draft. He became a full-time pitcher as a pro, using an 88-92 MPH fastball and an excellent changeup to blow through the New York-Penn League, and he looked good in two outings in the Florida State League as well. His main problem is a mediocre breaking ball, but he is athletic and I think there’s a chance the breaking ball can improve. I like former two-way players, and I think he’s a relief sleeper. Grade C.

Quick success continued in 2011: 1.68 ERA with a 40/10 K/BB in 48 innings for Tampa, followed by a solid 3.37 ERA, 37/19 K/BB in 43 innings after moving up to Double-A Trenton. He looked good in the Arizona Fall League, and his stuff improved to match the stats:

Whitley had a fine 2011 season, increasing his velocity into the 91-96 range while continuing to use his strong changeup. He made progress with his slider, and he was one of the few pitchers who performed well in the Arizona Fall League, posting a 1.62 ERA with a 13/5 K/BB in 17 innings with just 12 hits allowed. He’s got a three- quarters angle in his delivery that adds deception. Whitley needs to refine his command, but so far the Yankees have to be happy with his development and he could get to the majors within the next two years as a middle reliever. Grade C.

2012 was another solid year with a quick adaptation to Triple-A, posting a 3.25 ERA with a 66/25 K/BB in 80 innings for Scranton, with 61 hits. The Yankees began using him in longer outings, which seemed to cause his velocity to slip but without any loss in effectiveness. The report entering 2013:

Whitley reached Triple-A in less than two years and had a fine season in the Scranton bullpen. Whitley has average velocity at 88-92 MPH, but he hits his spots with it and avoids most mistakes. He has a fine slider, and his changeup is unusually good for a minor league reliever, giving him three usable pitches. Due to his relatively diverse arsenal, they stretched him out a bit as a long/middle reliever, giving him several multiple-inning outings (which enabled him to vulture nine wins). He even started a couple of games late in the year and performed well, throwing a combined eight shutout innings. Whitley isn’t going to close games in the majors, but he has a chance to fill the back end of a bullpen. He can pitch more than an inning at a time without wearing down, and even start in an emergency.  Grade C.

2013 was more of the same: 3.06 ERA, 62/21 K/BB in 68 innings for Scranton, 61 hits. The Yankees continued the stretching-out process, giving him five starts along with 24 relief outings. For some reason, I did not file a report on him entering 2014. Maybe it was my concussion, because his '13 was a another solid year for Whitley and my opinion hadn't changed, seeing him as a potentially useful bullpen guy.

As you likely know, Whitley was used as a starter early in 2014 for Scranton, pitched well, then was inserted into the Yankees major league rotation as an emergency measure in mid-May. He pitched well at first, making seven consecutive successful big league starts, giving up just 11 runs in 39 innings during that stretch. However, he began getting roughed up in late June and eventually ended up back in a relief role to finish the year.

Overall, Whitley pitched 75.2 innings for the Yankees, posting a 5.23 ERA with a 60/18 K/BB, giving up 94 hits and 10 homers. The FIP was better than the ERA at 4.14 and he kept his fWAR slightly positive at 0.6. Despite his background in the bullpen, he was actually more effective as a starter (3.81 FIP) than as a reliever (5.25).

Stuff-wise, he showed a four-seamer between 87 and 94 MPH this year, averaging 91. His two-seamer has similar velocity. He has a slider, but his best pitch remains his change-up. All of the PITCHf/x and Brooks Baseball data is line with the scouting reports from when he was in the minors.

Whitley's stuff isn't as good as Shane Greene's. It is easy to dismiss him as a flash-in-the-pan, but Whitley did help stabilize the pitching staff at a critical time and he's already done more than most 15th round picks can do.  The big key for the future will be reducing his home run rate. It was quite low in the minors, and if Whitley can avoid gophers more often, he could still be a useful asset due to his versatility and ability to throw strikes.

Chase Whitley

Chase Whitley, photo by Hannah Foslien, Getty Images